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How to Fix Learned Helplessness

What makes someone powerful? What separates the winners from the losers? The big shots from the underdogs? Better yet, what allows an underdog to finally break free?

Some glitch in the matrix? Sheer luck?

Nope. It’s remembering. Unearthing your power instead of letting it lie dormant. Power never leaves us; we must only awaken from the spell of learned helplessness.

Psychology has taught us that learned helplessness is about a lack of perseverance. Even when there’s something we can do to get ourselves out of a bad situation, we don’t do it. But the phenomenon of learned helplessness goes way deeper that a mere willpower issue, or a defeatist mindset.

As always, to understand a form of human conditioning, we have to understand the nervous system. What makes someone learn to be helpless?

- Their past experience

- Their perception about those experiences

(Rather watch the video instead?)

No one gets trapped in learned helplessness because their past actions led to wild success. It’s not a conscious choice. Most people with L.H try really hard in one or many areas of life for an extended period of time and see minimal to no results. This directly correlates with the freeze response.

In the wild, animals that can’t fight or flee from a predator will automatically shift into freeze (aka non-movement and numbing out). In other words, freeze is the nervous system’s last resort at giving you a decent ride out of this life.

People in a state of learned helplessness are in freeze – aka energy conservation mode as a survival tactic. No intelligent person would continue extending effort toward things that are not working, right? From a survival standpoint, it would be absurd. We would deplete our energy, run out of food, and be dead in no time.

To quote a random smart person on the internet, “When any animal, from insects to humans, is repeatedly defeated, the real problem is that the high [nervous system] activation is still running underneath their apparent immobility. There comes a point when it [the freeze response] needs to be discharged in bits instead of all at once. This is why it becomes impossible to act again even when the problem or the threat is gone. For our system, the problem is considered gone only when the activation has been discharged.”

Researchers have observed animals coming out of freeze rather quickly, such as an antelope that narrowly escapes a lion, but because humans have a more developed neo-cortex, we tend to suppress this instinct without realizing it. Long story short, traumatic energy accumulates.

When we bring this ancient survival system into the modern world, things get really confusing.

For example, I extended significant effort and money when I was younger going to college. Looking back, that effort was mostly wasted, as I received almost nothing in return – not even a well-paying job. First, I tried really hard to fight the situation by working super hard and becoming successful. When that didn’t work, I decided to try fleeing, avoiding difficulties and skirting by with bare minimum effort. When I realized that too wasn’t getting me anywhere, I naturally transitioned to freeze, in which I spent my days feeling deeply indecisive, lost, over-indulging to numb out, and just giving up on everything.

In hindsight, my survival system was working flawlessly, a testament to how powerful the nervous system is at managing your energy and making executive decisions for you.

But in the modern world, we don’t have much sympathy for the predicament that is learned helplessness. For example, someone could easily look at my situation and say that I majored in the wrong thing, didn’t do enough internships, or should’ve continued to grad school right after finishing school. And they’re right! However, hindsight is 20/20, and this is deeply unhelpful. It does nothing to help us resolve our present-day dilemma – which is that our nervous system is deeply conditioned to FREEZE rather than take constructive action.

Here, we’ll explore the most important elements of how to fix learned helplessness and regain autonomy. Keep in mind, any de-conditioning is not an overnight process, so if this is you, be patient with yourself.

Steps to Fix Learned Helplessness

  1. Try somatic therapy and/or de-armoring therapy. People may tell you that the cure to learned helplessness is positive thinking, but let’s be honest, you’ve probably tried that already. Again, the body is convinced that action = death, and that energy conservation is the ONLY option. In freeze, your body thinks you are a gazelle in the mouth of a lion. This goes way beyond the conscious mind and into your physiology itself. Someone like a life coach may have no ability to help you with this, but a somatic practitioner can take you right into the eye of the storm to discharge that traumatic energy.

  2. Face the failure, face the grief – Let’s face it, people with learned helplessness are dealing with major life disappointment – Nobody wants to end up feeling like a gazelle in the mouth of a lion. It weighs on your self-esteem and makes you regret the past. For some, life not going as planned literally haunts them. Worst of all, it often establishes a sense of shame and defectiveness that festers like an infection. Shame is a lie that breeds and keeps us in the shadows of life itself.

  3. Fixing learned helplessness doesn’t have to be rocket science. Author Angela Duckworth recommends a simple rule that she herself lives by: Do one hard thing a day. Just ONE. Her book poses the question, “Why do naturally talented people frequently fail to reach their potential while other far less gifted individuals go on to achieve amazing things?” Her answer was not optimism or talent – it was GRIT. (show grit definition) Thankfully, grit is nothing more than a trait. Simply google “GRIT” and look at all the info on how to cultivate it. Also, don’t wait until you feel good to take action. You know all those people who talk about inspired action and how easy and effortless everything is? Ignore those people.. for now. Expect there to be some resistance – maybe even a ton of resistance – as you’re moving through you day trying to make decisions. If you’re in the thick of L.H, deciding what to have for breakfast can feel like running through a minefield of consequences. It’s not that you’re indecisive. It’s that you’re convinced the decision you make won’t work out. This is a traumatic pattern for you. Just let it be, make the best decisions you can for the time being, and move on. Don’t dwell and – FOR THE LOVE OF GOD – don’t look for the perfect action to take. You will drive yourself insane and deplete your energy further.

  4. Look for an easy win – low hanging fruit is your best friend. What’s something hard enough that you’ll feel proud to achieve it, but easy enough that you won’t be instantly discouraged if it doesn’t go perfectly? Oftentimes, people with learned helplessness desperately need a win –SOME evidence that their actions can have a positive impact on their reality. Starved of this experience, they often feel like ghosts who might as well just float off into a dissociative state. This is exactly what the gazelle does seconds before it becomes dinner.. but you are not dinner. An easy win can help remind you of that.

  5. Make friends with discipline, very slowly. Discipline is not your enemy, although it may seem like it is. You may assume highly disciplined people simply have something you don’t. Discipline teaches that consistent effort over time yields results. But if you have learned helplessness you do not believe that. Not in regards to yourself at least. But I want you to try to see discipline like ‘the one that got away,’ as people often talk about in romance. Discipline is your “one that got away” and maybe it’s time you tried to win them back? (if you have learned helplessness and you are very disciplined, consider whether those efforts actually go toward your true goals, or if they simply go toward obligations and routines that help you avoid feeling powerless. Remember: avoiding powerlessness is a different energy than courage.)

  6. What are you so committed to that you would do it for the rest of your life, even if you never reached traditional “success” ? In other words, separate your motivation from the idea of success. Separate your worth from your achievements. Then, act.

  7. Your mantra from now on: It is ok to be this way. It is normal that this happened. This does not reflect on my character. It reflects on my life experiences and my perspective. I am a victim of classical conditioning, and I can de-condition myself through small actions that add up over time. You are not a gazelle in the mouth of a lion. You are simply a Harry Potter who’s been living under the stairs.

You learned to give up power. Now it’s time to reclaim it.

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